Star Stories, part 8: Our Clans Among the Stars, chapter 1
Updated: Aug 25
Miin-giizis /Abitaa-niibini-giizis (Berry Moon/Halfway Summer Moon), July 19, 2021
Updated: Manoominike-giizis (Ricing Moon), August 8, 2023
NINDOODEM ANANG (MY KIN STAR)
Anang piidagoojin Gibagakaabamin Nindoodem anang Nindaanikoobijigan
Nimiikana gwayakwaa Gigichitwaawenimin
Ninga kikinowaatchitoon gindinaadiziwin
A star falls through the sky toward me I see you clearly My kin star My forebear
My path is straight I give you praise
I will imitate your nature
- My personal song honoring gidoodeminaanig, our clans
Gidoodeminaanig giizhigong giwiidosemigonaanig ... Our clans, our bloodlines in the sky, they walk with us ...
Welcome to part 8 of a blog series titled "Star Stories," in which I connect my and kindred artists' storytelling art – in the form of rings, jewelry, and canvases – with anang akiiwan (the star world) as perceived by our Peoples that since time immemorial inhabit the northern regions of Turtle Island – nowadays called Canada and the United States.
Today's post opens a fascinating doorway to a notion that is nearly forgotten in our day. This notion is based on the primeval knowledge that our system of blood-related kinship called odoodeman, or clans, can be traced back all the way to the star world. Gidoodeminaanig wiidosem wa'awe: Our clans, our bloodlines walk with us, not just on earth – but also in the sky ...
The objective of this blog post, in short, is to examine the relationship between our present-day clans and the ancient sky orientation and the worldview of our ancestors, in which, we will learn, humanity, nature, and the spiritual realm are closely connected.
In part 1 of my "What's Your Doodem" series we learned that in Anishinaabe as well as in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Ininew (Cree) societies, the families, which have an extended nature, are organized into odoodeman (clans), or, in the case of the Anishinaabeg, into phratries (clan groups) that in turn are divided into clans and subclans. We learned that the clan system used to be an important framework of social and kinship signification that related individuals to a specific land and a specific People. The purpose of phratries and clans was to divide labor and spiritual-ceremonial tasks, provide general support, and to stress identity of self and the group.
~~ Origin of the word doodem ~~
We also learned that this web of kinship, which has proven itself such an important frame and the binding fabric of our societies, is called gid-oodem-inaanig in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language). This roughly translates into "our blood relations," or "our clans." The stem of the word is -oode, signifying a blood-related kinship; the suffix -m indicates a possessive relationship. It is also possible that "oodem" comes from the same root as "doodam,” which means "to do," “to act,” or “to fulfill,” and "doodosh," meaning "breast." The literal meaning of the word (d)oodem, therefore, could be: "breast from which I draw," in other words: "that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being."¹
~~ Animals and the Principle of Anishinaabe Clan Kinship ~~
So, what else did we learn in the previous posts about our clans? The awesi'ag! Without the animals we would not have clans. We learned that gete'ayaag, our ancestors, listened very carefully to the awesi'ag and paid careful attention to their ways because they had great respect and admiration for their innate intuition and spirit powers. This did not only hold true for naawogaadedjig (four-legged animals); the terms manidoowish(ag) and manidoons(ag), which both mean "little spirit(s)" and which were used for the spirits of, respectively, small animal(s) and insect(s), testifiy of this. It was believed that animals disclose certain norms and principles that we, as humans, need for living long and healthy lives. Because of this, and because they understood that animals represent the basic needs of human society, they chose them as emblems for their phrarties and clans. Thus, trough the clanship system founded by our ancestors, the awesi'ag, even in our modern day and age, instill in clan members certain virtues to emulate and provide them with a set of life-long responsibilities to live up to – both individually and communally.
Although nowadays of less importance and in many cases merely symbolical, Anishinaabe clans are instrumental in traditional occupations, inter-tribal relations, and marriages. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries our clans used to play an essential role in warfare, diplomacy, and in maintaining law and order. Clans had become the number 1 binding factor; "tribal" labels held little or no meaning. Individuals regarded themselves as members of a doodem first, then a(n) (immediate) family, and then a community.
On a personal level, the clan to which a person belonged determined their place and role within their community. Gidodoodeminaanig, our kinship system, was not primarily determined by direct blood relations, but by social relations and roles. Kinship, and the clan system that reflected it, was at the heart of all social relationships. Literally all social – and, in some cases, political – interaction was conditioned by kinship.
~~ A Traditionalistic View on the Origin and Function of the Clans ~~
But the real topic of this post evolves around the questions, where did our clans come from, and when, and how, were the geteayaa'ag introduced with its principle? We already learned that Midewiwin Ojibwe tradition² relates that thousands of years ago when the Anishinaabeg still lived in Waabanaki or Dawn Land along the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, six great beings emerged from the sea. These beings are called called Midemiigis-gaa-niigaani-gikendangig; prophets who had taken the form of Miigisag (Seashells). These seashell-prophets established a unique system of kinship based on five phratries or clan groups divided into several different odoodemag. Each Miigis Being represented an animal, a bird, a fish, a tree, or a Spirit Being.
In Ojibwe Anishinaabe narrative, clans emerged when the Anishinaabeg lived on the eastern coast of North America long ago, before their migration inland to the Great Lakes region. William Whipple Warren (1825-1853) documented the story of the origin of the clans as follows: When the Earth was new, the An-ish-in-aub-ag lived, congregated on the shores of a great salt water. From the bosom of the deep there suddenly appeared six beings in human form, who entered their wigwams. One of these strangers kept a covering over his eyes, and he dared not look on the An-ish-in-aub-ag, though he showed the greatest anxiety to do so. At last he could no longer restrain his curiousity, and on one occasion he partially lifted his veil, and his eye fell on the form of a human being, who instantly fell dead as if struck by one of the thunderers. Though the intentions of this dread being were friendly to the An-ish-in-aub-ag, yet the glance of his eye was too strong, and inflicted certain death. His fellows, therefore, caused him to return into the bosom of the great water from which they apparently emerged. The others, who now numbered five, remained with the An-ish-in-aub-ag, which became a blessing to them; from them originate the five great clans or Totems…
Now, the Miigis Being who – still according to official Ojibwe Midewiwin historiography – appeared first out of the sea was a fish called Wawaazisii (Bullhead); he would form the phratry whose clans would deliver the teachers, scholars, and healers of the Nation. Bullhead, along with Ajijaak (Crane), Nooke (Bear), Moozwaanowe (Little moose-tail), and Aan’aawenh (Pintail Duck), created the original five clan groups. The sixth Being that came out of the sea, a Binesi-miigisag-ayaa or Thunderbird Seashell Being, is said to have sunk back into the sea after being exposed to the light and heat of the sun; other sources claim that he sank back into the sea to save the Peoples because he was so powerful that it was impossible to gaze at him without perishing ...
So, to describe in a nutshell Anishinaabe clanship according to Ojibwe tradition, one could say that the first clan groups emerged from the sea to teach the Anishinaabeg morality – in the form of the Seven Grandfather Teachings – and bring community-labor structure (in terms of a set of basic needs and duties) and bring marriage regulation (in the form of incest taboos).
Image: We-nen-wi-wik-ka-ni-an, acrylic on canvas by Ojibwe painter Ezhinwed (Chris Angeconeb). The painting epitomizes the modern-traditional Anishinaabe notion of Gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit ruling over aki, the world. Its legs seem to rest upon what looks like a Midewigaan (Midewiwin Ceremonial Lodge).
"No matter where or how we look at the universe, it’s full of matter and energy absolutely everywhere and at all times. And yet, it’s only natural to assume that it all came from somewhere. If you want to know the answer to the biggest question of all — the question of our cosmic origins — you have to pose the question to the universe itself, and listen to what it tells you." - Ethan Siegel in his blog Starts with a Bang.
~~ A Shift of Worldviews ~~
It was under the influence of the Europeans with their dualistic and patriarchal thinking that the old Anishinaabe worldview shifted into a more “vertical” belief. At the same time, the relationship between the different beings and creatures of earth, underworld, sky, and water became characterized by a more dialectical nature. The modern-traditional Ojibwe and Anishinini (Oji-Cree) conception of a hierarchy of powers – where the Universe consists of three different levels, underworld, earth, and sky, with Gitchi-manidoo (The Great Spirit) sitting on top and presiding all three –, does not appear to have been part of early izhinamowin. Our remote ancestors did not draw such neat lines between the different spheres of the Universe. To them, the lines and borders between creatures and spheres were diffuse and continuously interchangeable, and certainly not conceived in a vertical orientation. All creatures of the sky, earth, and water, while different beings, were seen as interrelated and integrated in one inseparable cosmic whole.
It should be noted in this context that, although the Ojibweg and Anishininiwag had resisted Christianity for a long time (at least until the mid-nineenth century, when they became confined in reservations/reserves), many 19th century Mideg (members of the Midewiwin) were actually members of Christian churches. Mide rituals became heavily borrowed from Scottish Freemasonry, which introduced into Midewiwin a more patriarchal outlook on the society and the world at large. This paradigm shift has been playing, and still plays, an essential role in the shaping of noongom-anishinaabe-izhinamowin (our modern-traditional worldview). It is therefore important to understand that this also includes our contemporary-traditional view on odoodem-gikendaasowin (clanship).
Gichi-manidoo (the Great Spirit), Gizhe-manidoo (the Benevolent Spirit), and "Creator" are in essence modern concepts infused with the male-dominant outlook and the patriarchal, monotheistic god concept that is so typical of Christianity. Before contact with the Mooniyaag (Europeans) there was only bimaadiziwin, life in its broadest sense, and manidoo, which can be translated as both spirit and mystery, and which was in all things of life. The higher power, in the old view, was life itself. All beings and creatures possessed this life and manidoo. The Universe was filled with manidoowiwin (life's spirit-character), which was neutral and genderless. Rather than a male God-like spirit presiding over the world, bimaadiziwin, and bimaadiziwin manidoowiwin, were simply seen as a cosmic source of sacred power suffusing and animating all creatures and things on, underneath, and above the earth that were either corporeal (natural) or incorporeal (supernatural).
Along with a shift in the way our ancestors viewed nature came a new understanding of our clans. Although there is no proof of this, I personally believe – based on a combination of instinct and common sense – that, under the influence of the social doctrines of the Wemitigoozhi (European) invaders who reached the Great Lakes in the 17th century, and deeply pervaded by the Christian dogmas that came with them, Anishinaabe kinship shifted from a matriarchal to the patriarchal organization that we have today; meaning that before contact, individuals were born in their mother's doodem instead of their father's.
But there is more. There is reason to believe – based on our own gwayakwaajimowin-aadizookewin (true-history and sacred-storytelling) as well as on studies by non-native researchers – that there was once, in pre-contact times, a widespread notion among Anishinaabeg Peoples across the northern regions of Turtle Island (North America) that – at least some of – our clans came from anangoog, the stars.
Haa mii sa geget igo, gidoodeminaanig giizhigong giwiidosemigonaanig ... It is very true! Our clans, our bloodlines among the stars, they walk with us ...
In this context it is therefore easy to see how clanship revolved around the ancient notion that the souls of the deceased transmigrated between the earth and the sky world; clans, therefore, were, before anything else, associated with post-death and transmigratory matters.
By the time (probably around 800 CE) the "modern" Ojibweg/Anishinaabeg had colonized the southern part of gichigamiin aki, this original function of the Anishinaabe doodemic system, namely mortuary regulation, had shifted to the "modern" system of dividing labor and marriage regulation that we discussed earlier.
Tradition dictates that when a person gets buried, their odoodemimazininibii'igewin (clan symbol) appears on the grave to mark their lineage. Also, odoodemimazininibii'igewinan appear in birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin and in the old treaty documents. The above wood-carved effigies are placed at graves in the area of Baawiting, Sault Ste. Marie.
"When a person dies ... the family lights a fire in their home. Relatives of the dead tend to the fire, keeping it continuously lit until the fifth day after death, when they bury the body. During the first four nights, the family offers food to the spirit. They also offer tobacco, one of the four sacred medicines the Ojibwe traditionally use. (The others are sage, sweet grass and cedar.) They place birch bark matches inside the casket with the body, so that the spirit can use the matches to make fires along its journey to the other world... The land is called Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining — the land of everlasting happiness. On the final night, the relatives hold a feast. During the meal, they offer food to the spirit of the person who died for the last time. At the end of the meal, they smoke a final offering of tobacco or place it in the fire. Next, the funeral conductor speaks directly to the spirit, laying out the details of the journey the spirit will undertake in its passage to Gaagige Minawaanigozigiwining." - Lee Staples,spiritual leader of Misi-zaaga'iganiwininiwag (Mille Lacs Ojibweg), facilitates traditional funerals. Source: Seven Ponds
~~ Birth and Rebirth ~~
The mortal world of our ancestors, as it invariably intersected with the spiritual realm, was basically seen as a reflection of the star world. Knowledge of anang akiiwan gikendaasowin (astronomy), which assisted our ancestors in telling time, direction, and weather, has not only been vital to survival as Peoples but lies at the very base of the anang nibwaakaawin (star wisdom) and anang akiiwan izhinamowin (cosmology) of the Ojibweg and Anishiniwag Peoples. Star knowledge was predominantly – yet not exclusively – the field of the men and women of the Waabanoowiwin, the ancient Anishinaabe Lodge of the People of the Morning Star, or Dawn. In the old world, where you came from was not merely a question of miskwi-inawendiwin (blood lineage), or akiiwi-gikinoo'amaagewin (geography); what really counted was our star knowledge.
Geget, our (relatively modern-traditional) Ojibwe historiography dictates that our first totemic clan groups emerged from the Atlantic Ocean, but a closer look at our ancient cosmology will reveal that Anishinaabe (as well as Ininew) clan system can be traced back all the way to the star constellations that dwell the above-world. The stars taught us everything we needed to know about our clans and also how to build our ceremonial Lodges. This star-origin of clanship and ceremonial practices is a concept that is based on a very old cyclic belief in the sky-earth-sky transmigration of souls. Although Anishinaabe, and in particular, Ojibwe and Anishinini clanship is nowadays mainly a practical system that among other things divides labor and regulates marriage, in the old days (let’s say, in pre-contact times) it had a much deeper and more profoundly spiritual – cosmic – meaning.
Wherein, then, lies the cyclic, cosmological nature of our clan system? you may ask.
First of all, as we saw above, in the old days, before our cosmology became heavily influenced and indoctrinated in the era of forced Christianization, Anishinaabe clan system had primarily a, what could be called, “mortuary regulation” function – meaning, people were given funeral rites in accordance with their doodem clan. Our gaganoonididaa, or end-of-life rituals, still bears witness of this ancient belief; see the above image. Other functions included marriage regulation (meaning a system of exogamy was enforced on the group) and dietary restriction (meaning people were prohibited from eating one's doodem clan animal). Now, let's have a closer look at the cosmic idea behind this system of regulations and taboos. To the ancestors of the contemporary Anishinaabeg and Ininewak (Cree) Peoples, the celestial journey path among the winter stars was seen as highly significant. They believed that when it was time for a person to leave for the eternal existence in waakwiing, the realm beyond the stars, their ojichaag (soul) ascended to the star constellation of their clan animal. A clan doodem before anything else referred to the place in the sky where a person’s odoodem must go to achieve REBIRTH of his/her soul. In other words, one’s birth ("origin") referred to the place in the sky where each new generation was created.
Above image shows an acrylic on canvas by Ojibwe Manitoulin/Wikwemikong Elder James Mishibinijima, titled "Starland and Spirits." Our traditional gete-anishinaabeg (Elders) know many stories of anang nibwaakaawin (star wisdom). Some of these anang aadizookaanan (star stories) explain where we come from and which path we follow on earth and which path we travel in the above-world when it is time to reunite with our aanikoobijiganag (ancestors). Elders and community members relate – through songs sung to abinoonjiinyag, the children – that we enter aki (the below-world, the earth) from waabang (in the east). Waaban, the east, is the direction of, respectively, biidaaban anangoog (the Dawn Arrives Stars), waaban anang (the Morning Star), and mooka'ang giizis (or zaagade), the Sunrise. We are now in the stage of dawn and the beginning of life, and the place where ziigwan (spring season) starts. Next, as we follow the path of giizis the Sun, we reach jibwaa-naawakweg (“Before-noon”), and soon after this we arrive at naawi-giizhigad, or aabitawi-giizhigad (“Mid-day”). This time of day relates to zhaawanong (the Southern direction) and niibin, the summer. Zhaawan, the South, and niibin, the summer, are associated with the stage of learning. We then move on, still following the direction of the Sun's path across the Southern sky, toward ishkwaa-aabitawi-giizhigad (After mid-day). After mid-day we enter the dominion of ningaabii-anong (the West) and dagwaagin (Fall season). This is the final stage of our life and our spirit eyes behold e-bangishimog (the Sunset). Our terrestrial life comes to a halt and owiiyaw (our body) returns to aki, the earth. To get to the next stage means self-reflection and letting go of our ego and we travel to gookomisinaan, our Grandmother, who manifests herself as dibiki-giizis, the Moon. Our spirit then enters the dominions of giiwedinong, "in the North," and biboon, "the Winter." Giiwedin, the North, is the place where we gain wisdom and insight. It means we go back home now our purpose on omizakamigokwe, our Mother Earth is fulfilled. When the first snow falls in the place of biboon our spirit-vision observes how the wenabozho star constellation that shines in the night sky changes into gaa-biboonikaan, the Bringer of Winter constellation in the above-world. Wenabozho/gaa-biboonikaan (a mighty hunter whom the ancient Greeks called Ὠρίων or “Orion”) points the way to a cluster of stars known as bagone-giizhig – a “Hole in the Sky,” a constellation the ancient Greeks named "Pleiades." Next, as we follow this direction, our jiibay (soul-spirit) travels through this “Hole in the Sky” to enter jiibay-miikana, the Path of Souls. It is at the end of this celestial path – which we see depicted in the above canvas – where we find back our place of origin and reunite with our ancestors. Here we become reborn in the odoodem (clan) of our father and eventually return to the below-world; the life cycle on earth starts again – and so on –, and the east-south-west-north-north-west-south-east life cycle is complete. (Loosely based on a teaching by Ogimaawab Joseph Sutherland.)
~~ Stories of Stars and Insects ~~
Before we delve deeper into the topic of how each individual clan on earth relates to a given star constellation above, let's take a moment to reflect on what insects and stars have in common. When we, as human beings, look down we notice how numerous and tiny the creepers and flyers are, and when we look up in the night sky, we marvel at the multitude of them, and also at how small they look from the earth.
Some Anishinaabe aadizookaanan (traditional stories) directly connect insects to the stars. One story⁴ relates how the animikii binesiwag (Thunderbirds) helped to create the waawaatesiwag (fireflies) with lightning. The young animikiig were causing a lot of trouble by creating terrible storms, which their parents had to suppress. Their fathers tried to teach them baaga'adowewin (lacrosse), hoping it would calm them down, but their games only made them create more storms as they played. One of these storms was so powerful that it knocked stars from the sky. These stars fell to earth, broke into many pieces, and become waawaatesiwag...³
Like the manidooshag and manidoonsag (bugs and flying insects), the stars that dot the night sky might look tiny from where we stand, but their reflection is everywhere. Both insects and stars surround us every day and night, and they are connected to everything we know. Learning more about them is therefore extremely essential. But how do we do this when they are with so many?
When on clear nights we look up at our relatives that shine in the sky, we can try to grasp and interpret the enormity of their presence and learn from them, but for a better insight it might be helpful to realize that instead of looking at the planetary system in outer space as a whole, focusing on one particular star – or star formation – at the time brings more clarity. Sometimes we understand the cosmos or the universe better by looking at it through a narrow lense, by exploring the whole through small portions of it. The many teachings of awesi'ag (the animals), anangoog (the stars), the odoodem (clan) structures, and aki (earth) herself are brought to life through describing, in text and image, each individual celestial being that roams the Waawiyekamig, or "Round Lodge" – as the Anishinaabeg traditionally conceive the cosmos. By watching the visible stars and star formations singly, one by one, we thus enable them to teach us lessons that we can understand. This blog story, which is presented in two episodes (part 8 and 9), does just that: helping us gain an expanded awareness of life on earth by looking closely at the individual star formations that are out there, and, as if they were fireflies, light up the night vault before our very eyes in all their multitude, brilliance, wisdom, and wonder.
~~ The Hole in the Sky and the Path of Afterlife ~~
Inawendin is an Ojibwe Anishinaabe word expressing that everything in life is interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent on one another, and the phrase gakina-awiiya means “we are all related,” literally: “someone is everyone.”
The star stories of the Anishinaabeg Peoples are part of this complex system of spiritual philosophies and beliefs. Anangoog, the stars and planets, have always been regarded as our oldest relatives. Anang Gikendaasowin, knowledge of the stars and other celestial bodies, is found in many aspects of our culture; it particularly relates to our knowledge of aandakiiwinan (seasonal changes), nandawenjige and maamawinige (hunting and gathering activities), manidookewinan (our ceremonies), and - last but not least - our aadizookewin (storytelling).
According to our cosmology, there is a Manidoo-miikana (Spirit trail) that continually cycles from the terrestrial realms, across the sky world, star world and into the spiritual realms. In the night sky, we call this Spirit Trail Giizhik-miikana (“Cedar Trail”), the planetary elliptical that appears to move from east to west. The cleansing herb called Giizhik (cedar) and the sky (called Giizhig) are seen as spiritually closely related beings, hence the term “Cedar Trail.” The eight planets of our Solar System including our Mother Earth which is orbited by her child the moon, are all part of the Great Spirit Nation, headed by the Sun. All these relatives travel, each with their own names and spirits, across the sky along the Spirit Trail. Of all planets and their celestial family members, Nookomis Dibik-Giizis, Grandmother Moon is regarded as our principal gekinoo'amaaged, or teacher. She is often called Gookomisinaan: Our Grandmother.
Some of our spiritual leaders alive today are astronomers who still possess special anang gikendaasowin that our ancestors passed on to them; these specialists, anangoog maamiikwaabanjigedjig or anangoog gekenimaadjig (“star gazers”), still use this ancient knowledge to help guide the day-to-day affairs of their communities. Priviliged in this area are particularly the Waabanoowiwinininiwag, "The Men of the Dawn," members of the Waabanoowiwin, a secretive Lodge that mainly practices its age-old rituals and ceremonies under cover of the night. Much of their knowledge of the Sky Beings is sacred in nature and is used only under special circumstances associated with certain spiritual matters – which are never to be discussed in writing, or shared with those who aren’t members of the Lodge.
At the very base of the concept of inawendin lies the traditional izhinamowin (belief or worldview) that our world basically consists of two interrelated realms: a below-realm (the earth’s material world, including the lakes and the underworld of the lakes) and an above-realm (the star-sky-spirit world) and that every person in her of his life must strive to, either in ceremony or everyday life, acknowledge this relationship. Each person on earth was born in a doodem/clan whose origin lay in the above-realm; it was to the same clan she or he returned after death.
Aaniindi Nitam Anishinaabeg Gaa-Ondaadiziwad / Where the First People Came From. What did that mean in practice? Simply put, it means that when a person’s time on earth was up, their jichaag/jiibay (spirit/soul) traveled to the constellation designated by their doodem. This is where it became cyclic: his or her spirit/soul ascended to the giizhigong (above-realm) in order to achieve its proper rebirth into a new member of the doodem in question. The animal associated with the constellation in question was seen as the person's progenitor; in other words, when a person was born in a certain doodem (let's say, the loon clan), it was from Maang (the loon constellation, known as Little Dipper/Ursa Minor in Western astronomy) that they descended and it was to the same constellation they returned to at death. The gateway between the star constellations to the place in the above-realm (where each individual originates) and the below-realm (where she/he lives her/his life) is called bagonegiizhig by the Ojibweg and pakone kisik by the Ininewak (both literally mean: “Hole in the Sky”). It is this gateway where aaniindi nitam anishinaabeg gaa-ondaadiziwad: Where the First People came from. HOLE IN THE SKY is known as Pleiades in Greek astronomy. This hole in the night sky is said to be guarded by seven sisters – the seven stars that comprise the Bagone-giizhig constellation.⁴
There are many Anishinaabe aadizookaanan (traditional stories) about Bagone-giizhig and how the first anishinaabeg (or their odoodeman) were lowered from the above-world to the below-world. A very old owaanzh mazinaajimowin (cave painting done in red ocher) at Wiisaakode-giishkadinaang ("At the Burnt Bluff") near Nooke-wiikwed (Mako-wiikwedong), present-day Bay de Noc in Upper Michigan – shows similarities with the Anishinaabe story of Asibikaashi (Spider Woman)/Giizhigookwe (Sky Woman) who lowered the first humans from the Sky World (or the moon) to Earth through the Bagone-giizhig. The anishinaabe in the image seems to be connected to Spider Woman by a spiral umbilical cord. The painting -- believed to date back to about 2,400 years before present, or around 600 CE -- was possibly done by ancestors of the historical Nooke, or Nookezid (Bearfoot) Nation. These Peoples, who were related to the Mamaquectaw Anishinaabeg (Menominee), are believed to have lived in the area at least 500 years ago. According to Anishinaabe tradition, Wiisaakode-giishkadinaang used to be the dwelling place of Wiindigoo, the winter cannibal monster from the North. Wiindigoo is said to have its celestial antipode in the red star called Alpha Orionis on Western star charts. Wiindigoo Anang is one of the stars of the Gaa-biboonikaan constellation, called Orion in Western astrology. More about this topic will follow below.
Bagonegiizhig, the Hole in the Sky star cluster, named Pleiades by the ancient Greek and consisting of seven stars ("Seven Sisters"), is a celestial opening allowing spirits to travel. Bagonegiizhig, aaniindi anishinaabeg gaa-ondaadiziwaad: "the Pleiades star cluster, where the first people came from."* According to modern-traditional Anishinaabe tradition it was through Bagonegiizhig that Giizhigookwe (Sky Woman) descended to the Earth in order to lower the anishinaabeg (first humans) to the earth. Bagonegiizhig also serves as a gate to the Jiibay-miikana, the Path of Souls, meant for the jiibayag (soul-spirits) of the deceased to travel toward their final destination among the stars. Two important ceremonies are related to Bagonegiizhig: the madoodiswan, or sweat lodge purification ceremony, and the jiisaakaan , or shaking tent ceremony. The seven stars of Bagonegiizhig, besides being associated with the aadizookaan (sacred story) of the seven sisters,⁴ are believed to represent the madoodoowasiniig — the Grandfather stones used in the Sweat Lodge ceremony. Those who are involved in the Shaking Tent ceremony see in the star cluster the seven poles used in the construction of the jiisaakaan (Shaking Tent). The jiisaakaan that the jaasakiidjig (shaking tent medicine persons) build also acts as a spiritual doorway, similar to the spiritual doorway that is the Bagonegiizhig.
Elders and traditional stories tell us that the spirit of a person who dies on earth ascends through the Hole in the Sky star cluster via the Jiibay-miikana/Path of Souls toward the place of eternal happiness, beyond the setting Sun; seen in the context of doodem-clan origin, however, it makes sense to acknowledge that the true destination of the person's jiibay is the star constellation that represents his or her doodem-clan. Then, eventually, when it is time to become reborn, the jiibay leaves the doodem constellation and follows a contrary path along the Jiiibay-miikana, descends through the Hole in the Day constellation, and makes its reappearance on earth – into the doodem in which it was originally born. Of course, the idea that the east is where the spirits of humans are born is in line with the fact that the celestial beings, such as the Sun and the stars, move through the sky from east to west. The East to West path of the Sun and the stars is analogous to, what is called, waabanong miinawaa ningaabii'anong bimaadiziwin miikana: the East to West life path that we, as humans, walk on earth and that we, as traditional beings, follow spiritually, through our ceremonies.
In autumn, when the Jiibay-miikana points south, the birds follow it. When this happens the path is no longer called Jiibay-miikana, but Binesiwi-miikana (Thunderbird Road). In spring, the Binesiwi-miikana turns north and the birds follow it back again. A jiibay of a deceased person, once it arrives in the star world, must therefore travel to the south and north, and, in doing so, follows the migratory path of the birds – which our ancestors considered to be carriers of the spirits of the dead. Thus, the jiibay of a deceased person respectively a to-be-reborn person follows the “Thunderbird/Spirit Path” due north or due south. The direction of his or her path depends on which bird migration is underway; in late/spring/early summer the birds migrate north and in late autumn/early winter, the birds migrate south.
~~ THE PATH OF AFTERLIFE GRAPHICALLY EXPLAINED ~~ In modern-traditional Anishinaabe belief, after the body dies, the individual’s ojichaag (spirit) spends four days walking westward to the place where the jiibay (soul) dwells after death. The jiibay then ascends to ishpiming – which is the area between the earth and the sky dome – and then to giizhigong, the dome layer of sky world, through the Bagoni-giizhig (Hole in the Sky; Pleiades). Next, it travels along the Binesiwi-miikana (Thunderbird Path; the Milky Way) toward the Evening Star (Venus), after which it enters waakwi (the realm beyond the sky vault) and, eventually, gaagige minawaanigozigiwining: the Land of Everlasting Happiness. In the archaic, proto-Anishinaabe worldview , when a person died, their celestial journey started in the south. Before the jiibay got on the journey path, it first had to go southward; once it had done that it followed the Thunderbird Path northward until it reached its destination (the star constellation where it originated from). At the north celestial pole, in the Maang (Loon) constellation, sat Giwedin Anang, the "Returning Home Star." Looked at it graphically one could say, then, that the jiibay, after it enters the star world through Bagonegiizhig/Hole in the Sky, begins it celestial journey in the south at Giizhig Anang (Sky Star; Sirius), then follows the migrating birds on the Binesiwi-miikana/Thunderbird Path through the the Orion constellation to the Pleiades, then turns to proceed to the snout of the Gichi Makwa/Great Bear, where it turns again to end at the north celestial pole. Of course, when the same person rebirthed, his or her ojichaag (spirit) followed the same path in reverse order and, together with the birds migrating south, proceeded toward Bagonegiizhig's opening in the sky – and, ultimately, to aki, the earth, where it became reborn in the doodem clan of its progenitors. The above illustration of the Milky Way in the month of January depicts, by means of the purple arrows, the Path of Afterlife as conceived in ancient times by the Algonquian speaking Peoples of the Northern Hemisphere. The jiibay of a decasesed person begins its celestial journey in the south, in the area of Ma'iingan Anang (the Wolf constellation; Canis Major) – or, to be more precise, at Giizhig-anang (Sky Star; Sirius) –, then follows the migrating birds on the Binesiwi-miikana/Thunderbird Path through the three belt stars of Gaa-Biboonikaan/Nanabozho Anang (The Bringer of Winter/Wenabozho’s Star; the Orion constellation) to the Bagonegiizhig/Hole in the Sky, then turns to proceed to the snout of the Gichi Makwa/Ojiiganang (Great Bear or Fisher). From there the jiibay turns again to end at the north celestial pole; to be precise, at Giwedin Anang (the North Star, or Returning Home Star).
"Bear Reflection," untitled acrylic on art paper by the late Anishinini (Oji-Cree) painter Eddy Munroe.
~~The Earth, Air, Water Connection: as It Is Above, It Is Below ~~
In the old days, gidoodeminaanig (our totemic clans) had a tripartite interconnectedness, believed to derive from only three original odoodemag -- earth, air, and water. The jiibayag of the deceased were each consigned to their element; earth odoodemag (i.e. Bear, Wolf, Lynx, Moose, Turtle, Snake, Beaver) would travel to the Great Bear/Fisher, the Wolf, the Curly Tail, the Moose, the Turtle, the Great Snake, and the Beaver, and air odoodemag (i.e. Eagle or Thunderbird or Loon or Crane clans) would travel to the constellations of Thunderbird/Crane/Loon. Water clan people (i.e. Catfish, Frog, Mermaid, et cetera) were generally imagined to be located somewhere along the Path, or River, of Souls. This river holds stories of many water beings.
These water clan beings were sometimes depicted swimming; or they were imagined walking on the side of the river/path, where they helped the jiibayag (souls of the deceased) to find their destiny.
And then of course there is the most prominent Medicine Clan animal, nigig the otter, who — according to Midewiwin tradition — lives side by side with the water clan people in the milky way river of souls, where he, perfectly true to his playful nature, can be seen swimming and sliding up and down its shores, accompanying jiibayag of medicine people who are in search of their celestial origin, bringing them home.*
The celestial Water Clans, which are very old, are still alive; even today they, as well as the more contemporary figure of the otter, play a significant role in our stories and ceremonies and songs and are talked about in some jiibenaakewinan (funeral rites) in the more remote, northern communities across Anishinaabewaki (Ojibwe land).
Giigoonh (Ojibwe Fish clan) is one of the oldest Ojibwe phratries (clan groups). Fish clan members claim that their ancestors were the first to appear out of the Ocean. But there is also a direct link between the fish clans and the stars of the Jiibay Miikana (Milky Way). Noticing how they constantly watch the sky while they swim in the currents of rivers and streams, our ancestors understood that giigoonhyag (fish) have knowledge of the stars as much as they understand the motions of the sun and moon. The Fish Clan are therefore regarded as the peoples' knowledge keepers and philosophers. Even today they are responsible for solving disputes between the two principal leader clans of the Nation (Crane and Loon) on earth, and in the night sky they are responsible for guiding the jiibayag of deceased clan members toward their final resting place among the stars. Illustration by the late Miskwaabik Animikii (Norval Morrisseau).
Contrary to the popular belief that people literally descend from, for example, a fish or a bear or a loon, this was not the original belief with the Anishinaabeg and Ininewak Peoples — at least, not in pre-contact times. That was just how it got translated into the Christian and modern Western scientific worldviews.
Anishinaabe clan symbols superficially seemed to refer to earthly animals, yet in reality they directly related to stellar constellations seen as the destinations of the afterlife journey. People who said they “descended from a loon” generally meant that they came down from the Ursa Minor constellation. In general, the Christian missionaries from Europe, and later the anthropologists, entirely failed to grasp this concept.
The Anishinaabe term for "descend from" has often been erroneously interpreted in the sense of ondakaanezi ("to originate from an ancestral source"); what was really meant was "pass from a higher place or level to a lower one." For instance, to say “Maang nindoodem” ("my totem is the loon") did not mean the person believed a loon was his literal forebear; rather it meant that all members of his or her odoodem achieved their cosmic rebirth at the Maang/Ursa Minor constellation. One only has to look at the known traditional constellations to see that the constellations surrounding the north celestial pole correspond precisely to the main odoodemag of the Anishinaabeg and Ininewak. Large and smaller land animals and birds, such as makwa (bear), ma’iingan (wolf), bizhiw (lynx), mooz (moose), amik (beaver), ajikaak (crane), and maang (loon) are imagined to have their counterparts in the night sky in the form of those constellations; their movements on earth (or, in the case of bizhiw, on earth as well as in the depths of the earth and the lakes) are mirrored and emulated in the night sky, and vice versa. The Maang is one of the oldest star formations; as old as maang doodem, the loon clan itself.
This ancient Anishinaabe below-world/upper-world view on clanship had specific implications for mortuary practice; namely that upon death, finding one’s way to the proper constellation was seen as an extremely important mission, essential to the continuation of the person’s odoodem.
The graphic shown below shows a map featuring the known Ojibwe Anishinaabeg star constellations. Note that the Bear (in the shape of a Fisher), Loon, and the Crane/Thunderbird Constellations are all tightly clustered around the north celestial pole. This is in line with the above-mentioned ancient belief in a tripartite division/interconnectedness of earth-air-water.
The above image is an Anishinaabe Giizhig Anang Mazinaa'igan, or "Ojibwe Sky Star Map." It is Zhaawano Giizhik's personal artistic rendition of the traditional astronomical orientation of the Ojibweg Peoples. The title of the illustration is Gaagige Giizhig: "The Everlasting Sky." An effort has been made to incorporate into the map the archaic cosmology of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, as it existed before contact with the European invaders. The map was designed so that the Giiwedin Anang (North Star, or "Returning Home Star"; called Polaris on the Western star charts) is at the center of the map. This reflects the motion in the night sky where, viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, all stars and star clusters and constellations appear to rotate counter-clockwise around the motionless "Returning Home Star." Most planets — since their position cannot be fixed on a star map — were placed more or less randomly. The cardinal directions are denoted by Ojibwe words for the four seasons: Ziigwan, or Spring, for the East; Niibin, or Summer, for the South; Dagwaagin, or Fall for the West; and Biiboon, or Winter, for the North. The stars and asterisms and star constellations are positioned as seen from the perspective of a stargazer on earth who looks up to the night sky; hence the positioning of the east/spring at the left side of the map, and the west/autumn at the right side. The pre-contact story of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe aadizookaanan (legends) and the Ojibwe odoodeman (clans) among the stars is told by means of the above illustration, a guiding diagram that takes you on a magic journey to the extraterrestrial vastness of the Path of Souls (Milky Way) and beyond. The artist used drawings of animals/spirits and images of pieces from his jewelry collection to portray the star constellations/clans in the sky. In Ojibwe cosmology it is recognized that the souls of deceased persons leave Turtle Island (the earth; see the turtle hair barrette in the bottom right corner of the image) and ascend through the Hole in the Sky (the Pleiades; see the ring with the spider and sun design) to arrive in the star world. Here, they commence their celestial journey on the Path, or River, of Souls and follow the migratory path of the birds on earth – which our ancestors considered to be carriers of the spirits of the dead – toward the north celestial pole. It is here that they find their cosmic destination — the star constellation that represents the odoodem (animal clan) they were born in. In ancient times it was believed that both our stories and the clans of our ancestors originated in the star world. Viewed in that context, the clans and the characters of the aadizookaanan (legends) were more or less mnemonic devices — aiding the memory about what went on in the sky world. These story characters, since they reflected the position and the degree of luminousness of the stars and star constellastions above, changed through time and were usually of a flexible nature. For example, in some of the more archaic legends the character of Nookomis (Grandmother), who was associated with the moon, marries a terrestial bear; the latter was a direct reference to the Great Bear (Big Dipper) asterism in the night sky. In more recent stories of the Ojibweg, the Big Dipper was imagined to be a fisher marten who married a female fisher marten — an allegorical reference to the Little Dipper in the night sky. And then there are other Ojibwe stories in which the Little Dipper, instead of a fisher marten, is thought to be a loon. This Loon constellation in the sky had its terrestial counterpart in the form of the loon — a beloved water bird of the Northern lands —, and, by extention, was also regarded to be the birthplace of Maang doodem, the Ojibwe Loon Clan on earth. ©2021 Zhaawano Giizhik.
~~ Jiibay Miikana, the Celestial Path of Souls depicted on rock ~~
The mazinaajimowinan (spirit writings on rock) at Hegman Lake in present-day Minnesota are linked to a series of Ojibwe constellations in the sky. The position of these pictographs is said to be oriented toward viewing the constellations in the winter sky. It has also been suggested that the man with the outstretched arms is Gaa-biboonikaan, the Ojibwe version of the constellation Orion. This figure is the Winter-maker, who is also— depending on the seasonal context of the story told — associated with Wenabozho, the semi-spirit and benefactor of the Anishinaabeg Peoples.
The 7 marks above the Gaa-biboonikaan's shoulder could represent the Bagonegiizhig, or Pleiades as the "Hole in the Sky" is named on Western sky maps. The three canoes depicted above the Hole in the Sky travel in the same direction; since there are no star patterns in the night sky that exhibit three canoes, it is believed they represent spirits traveling the the Jiibay Miikana in celestial canoes. This "Path of Souls," called Milky Way in the English language, was believed to be the "spirit path" that the souls of deceased humans followed to the spirit world after death. Other names for the Path of Souls are Binesi Miikana (Thunderbird Path) and Nanabozho Miikana (Wenabozho's Path).
If it is true that the position of the pictographs on the Hegman Lake cliff wall was intentionally drawn oriented toward viewing the Gaa-biboonikaan constellation in winter, the moose and wolf (or lynx?), then, could well represent star patterns that can been seen on winter nights below Orion/the Bringer of Winter. The constellation of Mooz (Moose) heralded the fall; the wolf, or rather the path he follows in the night sky, symbolized to our ancestors the phenomenon that some planets travel backward through space. In this particular context, Wolf is not a teacher who walks the Earth with his brother Wenabozho, but a hunter who walks a path in the sky as Giiwitaagiizhig Bimose, "He Walks Around the Sky" as he perpetually follows the tracks of Mooz (the Moose) throughout the Universe. Learn more about the Wolf Sky Path in part 16 of the Star Stories series: The Wolf Above and the Wolf Below.
"Our spirits shine like electricity; it's a vibrancy of other places we carry within us," said the Wolf in the night sky to his relatives on earth.
~~ Birth of the North Star and Teachings of the Loon ~~
Giiwedanang, the North Star (literally "Returning Home Star") — being within one degree of the north celestial pole — appears almost motionless as viewed from the ground. The Ojibweg have a story about how two close brothers who lived on earth got separated; one went up to the sky and became the "Star of the North" and the other stayed on earth and became Baswewe (Echo). The latter would become known as the Loon and the Crane. It is easy to image that this event marked the birth of the star formations in the northern night sky, and, eventually, accounted for the origin of the corresponding odoodemag (doodem clans) on earth...
As we can see in in the above star map drawing, all other stars and celestial objects appear to be circling counter-clockwise around this Giiwedin-anang, the North Star. This motionless star is therefore regarded as ogimaa (a leader). The notion of leadership is perhaps best reflected in Ojibwe star knowledge by naming Maang, the Ojibwe clan leader, as the asterism containing the seven brightest stars nearest the motionless pivot point (the rotational axis around which the sky is observed to turn around, called NCP in Western astromony). These seven stars are known as ojiig anangoons (little fisher star; called Ursa Minor/little dipper on the Western star charts). Giiwedin Anang is located in the tip of the tail of the Maang asterism. On earth, Maang doodem, along with Ajijaak/Baswenaazhi (the Ojibwe Crane Clan), embody ogimaawiwin (chieftainship). Maang is ogimaa in the sky, and ogimaa on the Earth and in the lakes. This notion perfectly illustrates the mirroring of Earth/Water and Sky. Maang, which is visible all year round, dives in dagwaagin (the fall) and spends time throughout biboon (the winter) with the water clans.
The teachings of the loon are many. Clan teachings dictate that Loon, often called Zaaga'iganan Genawendang ("Keeper of the Lakes"), got his leadership place in the clan system because he once battled the Thunder Beings. Wenabozho, the semi-spirit and benefactor of the Anishinaabeg, witnessed this event in the night sky. This story is written on the back of the loon, which show as little dots on his black plumage. It is also said that when Loon grabbed all the stars and used their voices, singing songs of echo, Wenabozho asked him to place them back in the sky...
What defines Loon the most is his close connection to the water. Tradition has it that a long time ago, Loon's legs were broken and bent backwards, which made him unable to walk on the land. This is why loons avoids going on land except to nest. It made him a transcendent symbol as he dwells in the nebulous area between the material and spirit world. Physically, maang has the stars of the night sky reflected on its back. Even today, this very old notion of earth-water-sky mirroring is respected and maintained even after a loon dies; when an Ojibwe hunter kills a loon, it is never to be turned upside down since, in analogy with the maang constellation, the backside of the loon must always be facing the sky.
~~ Teaching of the Crane in the Night Sky ~~
Maang, the Loon, has a special relationship with Ajijaak, the Crane, both on the earth and the night sky. Like Maang, Ajijaak , or "Echo-Maker" as he is sometimes referred to, is known among the Anishinaabeg Peoples as as one of their leader clans; he, too, is regarded as a Thunder Being.
One oral story mentions that long ago Ajijaak was sent to find a place on earth for the Anishinaabeg, who by then still lived in the sky. The Anishinaabeg were lowered down to the earth through the Hole in the Sky (Pleiades). The Anishinaabeg remember this story when they look up to the sky on summer nights; here, the 9-star Echo-Maker constellation flies in a wide circle around the North Star. Maang, or the Little Dipper as he is called in mainstream society, is looked upon as the "internal" Clan (responsible for internal communication) flying in the center, close to the Giiwedanang, or "Going Home Star” as the Anishinaabeg call the North Star. The Going Home Star represents the oodena of the People (literally: Place where Family Collects") and the Crane, as the "external" clan leader responsible for external communication, flies in the outer sphere of this star. Visible from the Earth on summer nights, Ajijaak follows the Milky Way Path, which our Peoples know as Jiibay Ziibi/ The River of Souls, or the Jiibay Miikana, Path of Souls.
~~ Teachings of the Sky Bear ~~
Gete-ayaa’ag, the ancestors, who felt blessed daily to live at night under a blanket of countless ananoog (stars), knew that as it was above, it was below; what is in giizhigong –the Sky World – is mirrored below, on agidakamig, – the Earth. This understanding reflected the ancestors’ deep-felt connection with miziwekamig (everything that exists in the cosmos).
Traditionally, Giizhigomakwag, or Giizhigong Makwag, the Sky Bears or Bears-Above, are deemed eternal while Akiimakwag, the bears that live on Earth, die of sickness or old age or at the hands of hunters and return as manidoog (spirits) to giizhigong, the Sky World, from where they descended when born in their giizhigomakwaanzhwan (sky dens). Thus, the life cycle of the earthly bears reflected and paralleled the seasonal rotation of the great sky bear – in the form of cluster of seven stars – around Giiwedanang (the Returning Home Star, or Polaris/North Star). What happened in the Sky World – phenomenons that were expressed in the sacred star stories told to the young – foretold (and thus complemented) events that would take place on the Earth. The bear that dwells in the sky cared for the earth from its giizhiig wiigiwaaman (sky lodges) and the earthly bears reflected the movements of their cousin in the sky by digging for medicinal plants in the Earth in spring and summer; and also by finding a resting place in the earth's bosom when it was time to hibernate. Yet vice versa, the Earth Bears also care for the sky! Since the first humans (a twin) came from the sky, earthly bears by extension still care for and look after their descendants, the Anishinaabeg …
In ancient times, the asterism called Gichi Makwa by the Ojibweg and Big Dipper by Euro-Americans and Canadians was seen by the pre-Columbian ancestors of the Anishinaabeg (as is still by the present-day Ininew/Cree Peoples) to consist of a bear (or, in some versions, four bears) that once ascended to the Sky World (see above image). Gichi Makwa is translated into English as “Great Bear” (or simply "Bear"). The dipper's seven bright stars form a portion of the constellation called "Ursa Major" in Latin. The Ursa Major, or Greater Bear, contains 15 stars in total. According to this ancient tradition the quadrilateral (or the bowl of the Dipper) represents the body of the bear itself, while the handle, which in ancient times represented three hunters chasing the celestial bear, are the handle of the dipper.
It must be noted, however, that some would argue that many "traditional" Native American stories testify of a cross-cultural transcendence of tradition, and that the hunters chasing the sky bear is really an Ojibwe retelling of the Greek Boötes the "Bear Driver" myth, which the Europeans brought with them when colonizing Turtle Island (America). Others, myself included, tend to argue that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the northern parts of Turtle Island already incorporated these hunters (or, in case of the Mi'kmaq, birds or "bird-men") into their stories long before there could be a possibility of any cross-cultural pollination between Turtle Island and the Europeans.
True or not, fact is that quite a few generations of Anishinaabeg that lived in the far north saw the Gichi-makwa as having a very long tail of shiny copper stars. These stars extended all the way to the bright star that we will call Gichi Miskwaabik Anang ("Great Copper Star") – named Arcturus ("Guardian of the Bear") on the Western star maps. Seen from the earth this star has a very bright red-orange color.
The long tail of Gichi-makwa was probably a consequence of the north celestial pole being much closer to the Gichi-makwa a few thousand years ago. When the celestial pole was still near the Gichi-makwa , all eleven stars of its tail remained above the horizon year-round, including the Gichi Miskwaabik Anang. This proximity brought the Gichi Miskwaabik Anang above the horizon for a much longer part of the year, which is likely why the long-tailed bear was described as having a tail made of copper.
Gichi-Makwa was sometimes observed as sitting above ground and other times sometimes below ground (meaning: below the horizon). Throughout the ages, the Great Copper Star sank farther and farther below the horizon; this caused adjustments of cosmology all over the Northern Hemisphere and the connection between it and the Great Bear became gradually severed. As soon as contact with the Mooniyaag (Europeans) happened – but possibly long before that, at least a thousand years – , the tail of the Great Celestial Bear got "clipped"; the Gichi-Makwa constellation was no longer viewed as being attached to the Gichi Miskwaabik Anang. Of course, latitude allows more of the bear's tail to remain above the horizon, so Anishinaabe-related Peoples far north such as the Ininewak and the Mi'kmaq were able to maintain the long tail tradition longer than those who originally lived more to the south, such as (the larger part of) the Ojibweg. As a result, an Ojibwe aadizookaan (story) was, very gradually, created (see below) by which the bear was tricked into losing its tail by a very clever nigig (otter). Still, the Ojibweg retained ginwaanowe (long tail) as a clan totem, at least up to the nineteenth century.
How the Bear Lost His Tail - an Ojibwe legend told to Marian, Doreen, and Leonard Belille by Jerry Smith Long, long ago there were only creatures on the earth. There were birds, bears, deer, mice, everything but people. In this long ago time, all the animals spoke the same language. And just like some people nowadays, they played tricks on one another and made each other laugh. They also helped each other. So it was with all the animals. One day in the winter when the lakes had frozen, but before the winter sleep, Bear was walking along the lakeshore. As he was walking, he came upon Otter sitting near a hole on the ice with a pile of fish. "You've got a mighty big pile of fish there," Bear said. "How did you get them fish?" Instead of telling how he dove down into the water and caught the fish, Nigig (Otter) decided to trick Bear. You see, back then Bear had a very long bushy tail. He was very proud of his tail, and all the animals knew it. "The way I catch my fish is by putting my tail in this ice hole," Otter explained. "I wiggle it around once in a while so the fish see it. When a fish bites onto my tail, I quickly pull it up and out of the water." "That sure is an easy way to catch fish," Bear said. "Do you mind if I use your fishing hole?" Nigig, laughing behind the Bear's back, said, "I have enough fish. Use my fishing hole as long as you like." Then Otter picked up his fish and walked away. Bear carefully poked his tail into the ice hole and waited. He waited and waited. Once in a while he'd wiggle his tail so the fish could see it. Bear waited until the sun began to set, but not one fish even nibbled at his tail. At last, he decided to go home, but when he tried to stand up, his tail had frozen into the ice! He couldn't move! He pulled and pulled at his tail, but it was stuck tight. Finally, he pulled with all of his strength and ripped off half his tail! Now you know why the Bear has a short tail, and remember . . . don't always believe what people tell you. Source: Using Native American Legends to Teach Mathematics.
~~ Birth of the Great and Little Bear ~~
There are many traditional Anishinaabe and Ininew star stories about how the the Big and Little Bear came about. Below is a traditional Ojibwe story that I love and treasure.
“Many strings of life ago, there were two dibiki-giizisoog (moons) in the sky but no anangoog (stars). With his bow and arrows, and guided by omishoomisan (his grandfather), a young Anishinaabe boy named Makoons (Little Bear) shot at one of the dibiki-giizisoog, shattering her to form many anangoog (stars). Next, Makoons and his father, whose name was Gichi-Makwa (Big Bear), ascended up into the sky to make a home among the newly formed anangoog. Thus, Makoons and omishoomisinan were responsible for the formation of the Big and Little Bear – nowadays called Ojiiganang and Ojiig-anangoons (Fisher Star and Little Fisher Star) by most Anishinaabeg.” Loosely based on: “The Bear, Part of the Big Dipper,” Ojibway Sharing Circle.
Other Ojibwe star tales from the northwoods link Gichi-makwa to binaakwiig (autumn):
Once upon a time long ago, an angry gichi-makwa roamed the land, pillaging and destroying everything he encountered and wreaking havoc among the villages and encampments of the human beings. After a council was formed the People sent three of their bravest gaayosedjig (hunters) accompanied by their giiwosewasimoog (hunting dogs) after the bear. Soon they found the bear and they started to chase him. But when one of their arrows wounded him, gichi-makwa ran away fast, bleeding from his wound. So fast ran he that before the gaayosedjig could blink twice he had ascended high up ishpiming (into the sky). Without hesitation the three brave hunters and their dogs followed the bear, and to this day they still follow him through the night sky. The four stars that make up the head of the asterism called Fisher (Big Dipper) represents the bear; the three stars that resemble a tail represent the gaayosedjig chasing gichi-makwa and the dimmer stars around the three hunter stars are said to represent the hunting dogs. The bear goes round and round in the northern night sky with the hunters chasing its tail and every fall as Gichi-makwa comes low to the horizon its wound leaks a few drops of blood. It is this blood that each fall changes the color of the leaves on the trees… Source: Miles and Peters, “The Big Dipper and Colours of Autumn (murdo’s Story)" Note: Another Ojibwe story tells of seven hunters chasing the Sky Bear; four hunters got lost in the sky and since then mark the two hind legs of the greater bear constellation (Ursa Major).
To our ancestors, it was Gichi-makwa (the Great Bear), and in particular the zenith of bear’s head, that heralded the end of winter. According to an old tale of the Gichi-namegosibininiwag (Big Trout Lake, an Anishinini, or Oji-Cree People in Northwestern Ontario), as soon as the Big Bear disappears on the horizon the bears that live on Earth reappear from their winter dens. In this story, when gaa-biboonikaan (the Bringer of Winter) kept the Earth in his icy grip all year round, a myriad of colorful birds flew all the way to the upper sky regions, thus creating a summer abode among the stars. Gichi-makwa, who ruled over the sky, opened his celestial wiigiwaam and let the birds in, thus making niibin (summer) on Earth possible …
~~ An Ojibwe Story of the Celestial Fisher Marten ~~
In pre-Columbian times, in the Early Woodland period, the Great Bear asterism became gradually replaced by a similar tale featuring a Fisher Marten instead of a bear. The Anishinaabeg (who are probably descendants of the Adena peoples that lived in the area which is now Ohio and Kentucky) took over the story of the Fisher Marten; some, however, such as the Anishininiwag, who live more to the north and are therefore influenced by the culture and worldview of the Ininewak (Cree), maintained the story of the Sky Bear.
Ojiig, the Fisher Marten, still represents the odoodem of hunters among several bands of Anishinaabeg from the Great Lakes area, among which the Mamaceqtaw (Menominee) and Meshkwahkihakiwag (Fox). The Ojibwe Waabizheshi doodem (Marten clan) consists partly of descendants of the Maanadwe doodem (Fisher clan) of the Meshkwahkihaki. The Fisher stands particularly for singleness of purpose, and good sense.
Below is a traditional Ojibwe story that I love to tell, about how the Fisher Marten and his bride completed the arrangement of the night sky:
"Many, many moons ago, when during the Ice Age the ruthless Ga-biboonikaan (Bringer Of Winter) had the earth still covered with snow and ice all the year round, a daring Ojibwe Anishinaabe hunter by the name of Ojiig assumed the shape of the Fisher and, with the aid of the Wolverine, ascended to the realms of the Sky Fathers in a desperate attempt to steal Niibin, the summer. However, when the celestial beings caught Ojiig opening the makakoon (birch bark baskets) filled with summer birds and fowls, setting them free and letting warm breezes descend to the cold earth below, they wounded him with their magic arrows. Hereupon Ojiig, who still had the shape of a fisher, died from loss of blood from his tail. GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, as it was completing the formation of the earth and the skies, ordained that Ojiig's newly wedded bride Ojiigansikwe (Little Fisher Woman), who also came from earth, would leave her starry footprints round her deceased husband. Ojiigansikwe would there after be known as the Little Fisher (Little Dipper on Western star charts). Thus Ojiig and his bride Ojiigansikwe completed the arrangement of the skies." Source: Zhaawano Giizhik and Simone McLeod, "The Story of How the Fisher Brought Summer to the North."
~~ Mishibizhiw and the trials on the path to the Afterworld ~~
Called Anaamakamig Bizhiw (“Nambizhiw”) – Underground Lynx – in ancient times, Mishibizhiw is nowadays seen as a horned underwater spirit that lives in the depths of Gichigami (Lake Superior). The Great Lynx is also mirrored in the night sky as Gaa-ditibaanowe’ ("Curly Tail"). He is depicted in the star map with horns on his head and a spiraling tail; the latter represents the whirlpools in the lakes that he creates by slashing it. The celestial Lynx consists of stars that belong to the constellation called Leo and Hydra on the Western star maps. The head of Leo makes up the long curled tail, while the head of Hydra makes up the head of the Mishibizhiw.
When Gaa-ditibaanowe’ Mishi-bizhiw appeared in the night sky, it was seen by the ancestors as a warning to keep off the thinning ice. If risk was ignored one would likely break through the ice and get snatched by the horned lynx that lived below. On earth, although they keep themselves at a distance if not directly attacked, lynx can be dangerous when met on a mountain or in the thick forest – particularly where adult lynx females have cubs. Hence, the Gaa-ditibaanowe’ Mishi-bizhiw constellation is a reminder that the northwoods, especially during the transition time between winter and spring, is potentially dangerous. Thinning ice on the lakes and rivers, hard crust on the snow, flooding, and unpredictable snowstorms are characteristic of Gichi-gamiin, the Great Lakes region, during this time.⁸ Traditionally, when it is time to head for iskigamizigan (sugar bush) for aninaatig ozhiga'igewin – which is when the maple trees get tapped for their sap in iskigamizige-giizis (the month of April) –, feasts and prayers are offered. This is done for the water spirits (like Curly Tail) and to all those relatives that did not survive the winter and went on their final journey to the Jiibay-miikana (Path of Souls) and beyond.
Mishi-bizhiwag are often represented in mazinaajimowinan: pictograms and birchbark writings. They are also represented on historical Anishnaabe twined and quilled men's bags; these often feature a Thunderbird image on the reverse panel, reflecting the eternal conflict between the beings of the underworld and the sky world.
Mishi-bizhiw from a curing song scroll. The circle in his chest represents his heart, and the line connecting it to his mouth is his “heart line.” The lines on his flank represent power. His long curled tail may be a reference to his creating whirlpools in the Great Lakes.⁵ Mishi-bizhiwag are often represented in mazinaajimowinan, or pictograms and birchbark writings. They are also represented on historical Anishnaabe twined and quilled men's bags; these often feature a Thunderbird image on the reverse panel.
The text below demonstrates the role the Great Lynx traditionally plays in the post-contact Afterlife Stories of the Ojibweg - which are clearly infused with a Christian worldview:
"One final connection between humans and Mishibizhiw which has not been mentioned is the role played by a serpent in the path that the souls of the dead must take to reach the afterworld. This involves a four-day journey toward the west, where the land of the dead is located. Along the way, there is a sweet berry, usually a strawberry, by the side of the path, sometimes with a being next to it urging the soul to take it, but the soul must resist temptation and avoid eating it, or they are extinguished. Often there are other trials as well, such as a giant dog blocking their way. Finally they reach a raging river, which they must cross over a rocking log. If they fall off, they fail to reach the land of the dead and are turned into frogs, toads, or fish instead, or simply cease to exist. If they successfully navigate the river/log to the other side, they enter the afterworld. However, as is repeatedly clarified when Anishinaabe eschatology is explained to outsiders, the “log” is not really a log, but a horned serpent, either Mishibizhiw (/Mishiginebig) himself or one of his underlings. Navigating treacherous waters, by means of the god of waters himself, is thus the final step required to obtain a place in the afterlife—and those who fail the navigation end up as his minions if they are not extinguished altogether." From: Great Lynx, the Thunder, and the Mortals by Ozaawaabineshiinh.
The above image shows a detail of a sterling silver Mitigwakik/ Midewewe'igan (Sacred Drum) bolo tie, designed and handcrafted by Zhaawano Giizhik. The drum – "the instrument that makes the sound of the heart" – is symbolic of our ceremonies and our clans. Ojibwe tradition has it that gwiiwizensiwi-dewe'igan (the Little Boy Water Drum) came to the Anishinaabeg Peoples from the Sky World, as it was lowered to the earth through Bagonegiizhig, the Hole in the Sky (the Pleiades star cluster.) ⁶
~~ Ode'imin, the Boy in the Moon ~~
Last but not least I want to share with you the beautiful story of Ode'imin, the boy in the Moon, and Giizhigong Nigig, the celestial otter who accompanied him in the star world. Ode'imin, the heart-shaped berry, as is the Anishinaabe name for the strawberry, is forever linked to the dewe'igan, our drum, to Nookomis Dibik-giizis, our Grandmother Moon, to niigig the otter, and, ultimately, to Jiibay-miikana/ziibi, the path/river of Souls.
According to modern (post-contact) tradition, the Midewiwin was founded by the first herbalist/medicine man of his People, who went by the legendary name of Ode'imin (Heart Berry or strawberry). When a plague struck the Anishinaabeg, this 15-year old boy was one of many who died, and as he entered baakwiing, the Land of Souls, he pleaded with GICHI-MANIDOO to save his people from this destructive epidemic. GICHI-MANIDOO was so impressed by the admirable altruism of the young fellow that he brought him back to life and sent him back to earth on a mission of revival and hope.
Under the skillful tutelage of his supernatural teacher Wenabozho, who taught him to study the nature of plants from the conduct of animals, Ode'imin hereupon brought his People the Midewiwin, the grand Medicine Society that forever institutionalized the knowledge of curing, and he taught them about mino-bimaadiziwin. This Good Code for Long Life and Upright Living led to the physical and moral healing of the Anishinaabeg Peoples.
Ode'imin taught the People the properties and the curative powers of all beings of the plant world and conferred to them the philosophy of mino-bimaadiziwin, which would forever be propagated through the ceremonies of the Midewiwin. Ode'imin explained to the ancestors that a healer could only reach the highest possible order of healing powers through a high ethical standard, and not by knowledge alone. What counted were not only knowledge of plant and self, but also the ability to bring together the healing capacities of both plant and self. Only a herbalist gifted with and keeping up a high standard of inner power could expect the plant being to reveal its own healing power; only then the plant would allow the herbalist to confer his or her inner curative power upon the plant itself.
The Midewigaan, the Mide lodge, was built in honor of Ode'imin, and this is still commemorated today by our Peoples when they look up to the moon, his recent abode. Here he can be seen holding and guarding the gimishoomisinaan mitigwakik or grandfather-water drum. Through Ode'imin, Nookomis Dibik-giizis, our Grandmother the Moon, teaches the men of our Nation to care for this sacred item, and she has instructed our women to teach the men to use their hearts and to connect their hearts to the water drum. So sacred is the story of Ode'imin who lives in the moon to guard the water drum that the ma'iinganag, the wolves, can be heard howling at our grandmother at night...
Ode'imin, the boy who taught us our ceremonies, is also linked to giizhigong nigig, the celestial otter who lives on the Jiibay-miikana. After Ode'imin had died, nigig walked with him throughout this path of souls in the star world. At the end of this path the boy met up with spirits, who manifested themselves as grandmothers. The otter, called oshkaabewis or helper, walked with him as his travel companion. Today on clear nights you still can see the otter in the night sky in the milky way path of souls, where he – true to his playful nature – is swimming and sliding up and down the shores of the jiibay-ziibi – the river of the trail.
And to this day, whenever or wherever we as Anishinaabeg establish our villages and homes, we never neglect our duty to annually honor, celebrate, and carry on the gift of knowledge that was handed down to our ancestors by Ode'imin, the Heart Shaped Berry. Into this day, each spring and each summer Ode'imin is remembered and celebrated by the People, for the blossom of the strawberry symbolizes Ode'imin's first life and the berry itself his second. And all we have to do to catch a glimpse of him and his helper, the otter, is to look up into the night sky, to the moon and to the Milky Way river of souls...
Giiwenh. That´s how far this blog story goes. Miigwech for reading and listening!
*Bagonegiizhig, aaniindi anishinaabeg gaa-ondaadiziwaad: "the Pleiades star cluster, (there) where the first people came from."
Bagonegiizhig, "hole in the sky"; Pleiades.
Bagone, root word meaning "have a hole"; "giizhig" means "sky" or "day."
Ondaadadizi, "originate from some place", verb bimaadizi intransitive:
"Ond-" means "from a certain place, for a certain reason"; "-aad" means "way of being or life; one's character or nature"; "-izi" means "it/he/she is in a state or condition." The prefix "-gaa" is a complementer form used with conjunct to turn it into a noun, meaning either "one who … / thing that …," or "place where …" ^
² Midewiwin, which means literally ‘‘Society of Those Who Are in A Sacred, Or Unseen, State,’’ is a prestigious lodge or association of male and female healers and thinkers and artists, respected keepers and protectors of the traditional Anishinaabe way of life and ceremonies that are many thousands of years old. The Midewiwin aims to pass on the Great Binding Law of the Great Mystery, and, in particular, to conserve the concept of mino-bimaadiziwin, a set of Seven Grandfather Teachings on human conduct and a spiritual way for living. Its principal focus is recovering and keeping alive the seven mide-wiigwaasan (birch bark scrolls used for ritual purposes) and their sacred teachings which in recent history had been forced underground. These complex writings also include astronomy, mapping, information about the clan system and family lineage, and up to 1000-year-old migration routes. The symbols depicting historical events, songs, dreams, visions, and prophecies, called mazinaajimowin, were not only inscribed on mide-wiigwaasan, but have also been engraved or painted on cliff walls and rocks for many generations in the past, particularly in those mystic places near the coastline of Gichigami (Lake Superior) where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground, and the underwater meet. Source: Zhaawano Giizhik, Midewiwin and the Medicine Painters, Guardians of the Anishinaabe Way of Life. ^
³ Source: Manidoons, Manidoosh: Bugs in Ojibwe Culture WENDY MAKOONS GENIUSZ University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, page 98. ^
⁴ The Story of the Seven Sisters: "Seven children loved to dance and play, rather than help their parents in camp. The children’s mother went to seek advice on this problem and was told to place stones on their food. It was hoped that the children would appreciate the value of hard work if they were forced to remove the stones from their food before they could eat it. Unfortunately, this plan did not work. One day, the children danced so hard, they danced up into the sky where they can be seen to this day. Although you can clearly see them in the winter, they cannot be seen in the summer. One of the children fell back to earth, which is why most people can only see six stars in the cluster. It is believed that during the summer months, when ceremonies and dances are being celebrated by humans, the six children join them, returning to the sky with the onset of winter." Source: "Stories and Teachings from the Earth, part 3: Turtle and Bear, guardians of the Shaking Tent" by Zhaawano Giizhik. ^
⁵ Source: Tanner 1830:377. ^
⁶ The Midewiwin Grandfather Drum is supported by Oshkaabewis, his ceremonial helper, called the Little Boy Water Drum in reference to a (relatively modern) origin story of the Midewiwin that says that a little bear boy descended from the Sun and remained for some time among the Anishinaabeg to teach them the mysteries of the Midewiwin. See also: The Way of the Heartbeat, part 1: The Sound of the Mide Drum. ^
A LIST OF THE ANISHINAABE CONSTELLATIONS CLASSIFIED ACCORDING TO THE FOUR SEASONS:
ZIIGWAN - SPRING
Mishi-bizhiw Gaa-ditibaanowe': Great Lynx, the Curly Tail (Leo and Hydra)
BIBOON - WINTER
Ma'iingan Anang: Wolf Star (Canis Major)
Bagonegiizhig: Hole in the Sky (Pleiades)
Amik Anangoog: Beaver Stars (Gemini)
Mashkode Bizhiki: Bison (Perseus)
DAGWAAGIN - FALL
Mooz: Moose (Pegasus)
Bagonegiizhig: Hole in the Sky (Pleiades)
Madoodoowasiniig: Stones of the Sweat Lodge (Pleiades)
NIIBIN - SUMMER
Wenabozho/Nanabozho: the Great Hare Trickster (Scorpio and Orion)
Mishi-ginebig (Great Serpent): Scorpio
(Animikii) Binesi: Ophiuchus/Libra/Virgo/Serpens
CIRCUMPOLAR - ALL YEAR ROUND
Maang: Loon (Little Dipper)
Gichi-makwa: Big Bear (Big Dipper) (historical; Pre-contact era)
Ojiig Anang: Fisher Star (Big Dipper) (Post-contact era)
Giiwedin Anang (Returning Home Star): Polaris
Gichi-anang (Great Star): Polaris
Ojiig Anang (Fisher Star): Polaris
Manoominike Anang: Wild-Ricing Star (Cassiopeia)
Mikinaak Anangoog: Turtle Stars (Capella)